III: Recorded History
The guys then got together to start writing an album that was just a title (Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him) at that point, from scratch, unable to draw from any theatrical performing experience together. It all seemed to work so well that FIRESIGN THEATRE then began a series of round table discussion sessions, forming their emerging, and still surviving, working writing style. They were their own best and most critical audience with the ultimate result and the highest compliment, being to make each other laugh. From the very beginnings FIRESIGN employed the truest sense of democracy; only material that they all agreed to incorporate became part of their compositions. The one man veto and the filtration system of four high intellects stimulated a group built on trust and a handshake of legal anarchy, leaving each to pursue their own career directions and projects. They threw the flotsam and jetsam of their own daily lives into the stream of consciousness, free association humor of their audio mind movies, churning out surrealised versions of classic radio. They developed a continuing theme of parody, power, paranoia, and populism, running the entire political gauntlet of American culture with no idea for mass marketing but to please and impress each other.
However, when one looks at the immense radio and show business background of the individual members of the group, there is little wonder of their eminent success. FIRESIGN built upon the long established tradition of comedy stars coming out of radio, a theater of the mind that was as washed with documentary techniques as well as humorous soap bubbles. They were far less normal and cornier than Norman Corwin, newer than Newhart, freer than Freberg, goonier than the Goons and out bobbed and weaved Bob and Ray.
The recording sessions began in the spring of 1967 in late night studio romps that yielded little production. The writing style was more of individual elements shining on their own with augmented snipings aimed at short sketches, like most comedy concept albums of the 60's. On Columbia's Best of FIRESIGN THEATRE CD, Shoes For Industry, the liner notes state that Beat The Reaper was recorded 5/22/67, but it's hard to believe that at that time it was part of the longer Waiting For the Electrician piece.
The radio show continued on, and so did the day jobs. RADIO FREE OZ was now only on once a week, so that left the rest of the time to work on the album and do other things. The show began to achieve more structure with more actual pre-written and worked out bits, along with the pop records. Bergman soon split to Europe and Turkey for the summer to pursue the unfathomed wealth of Hollywood screen writing, leaving Ossman and Proctor to carry on the show and Austin to polish the boards of local theater and make occasional appearances. Bergman sent conversations and interviews from overseas to be played on the air and Proctor provided phone-in reportage from The Monterey Pop Festival.
The CBS studio sessions continued, sans Bergman however, laying down tracks for producer Gary Usher's Chad and Jeremy and Byrds projects. The trio also knocked off some of their own ideas on reel time coming up with a lame, rejectable East Indian meandering. It didn't work. Without Bergman to poke the sacred third eye of hippiedom and topical political culture, the group floundered in the wake of the Summer of Love. Upon The Wiz's return to RADIO FREE OZ, now on commercial KRLA AM radio, something wonderful began to happen.
FIRESIGN was scheduled to perform some 12 radio plays to be broadcast live from the gills of The Magic Mushroom night club as part of the 3 hour Sunday Night radio program. The writing sessions and mental wrestling matches spawned a new tag team partner: The 5th Krazee Guy. Just compare the tracks International Youth On Parade the first surviving group recorded effort from 2/67 to Exorcism In Your Daily Life the first Magic Mushroom performance, 10/27/67, released on Pink Hotel or side one of Electrician to side two, and you will hear the birth pangs and first spoken words of the 5th Krazee Guy.
He sure grew up fast. The 5th Krazee Guy is a presence you can feel. He's the climate control in Ralph Spoilsport's car. He's a joy ride where one can almost hear the clutches being pushed in the minds of the individual FIRESIGNs as they shift gears into overdrive; the 5th Krazee Guy. When the four are together, he comes in through the audience, but you never see him. At first, subtly, you become aware of him and then when you least expect it, you're in his lap, mouthing his words in your own brain, as a hypno-ventriloquist's puppet brought to life as we all become the 5th Krazy Guy.
In that sense FIRESIGN THEATRE is like a vaudeville radio house built with the bricks of politics and poetry combining the traditional elements of the dramatic with the comedy sketch, storyteller, poetic recitation, sing-a-long, revival act, etc. The audience regulars make house calls, to hoot and holler the built in cheers and heckles woven from the familiar material. Proctor aptly points out that the FIRESIGN is one of the few groups that gets heckled by their own material, and that's become part of the act. The 5th Krazee guy is a nirvana to achieve. It's a fraternal self satisfaction of cheerful camaraderie rather then the dronings of a stupefied chant of in-tune monks, a meditation that's omed into the minds of these show people in a way that makes it all seem so easy and unrehearsed. But it's not. These guys were something special indeed, not that stoned funny friend at parties, though they could be that, but highly skilled professional actors and playwrights, well trained in the prestigious ivy covered halls of East Coast mental institutions using their over-education to fool advantage. Ossman was a drama and literature major, a college actor and skillfully sensitive poet that worked for years in radio and published books. Austin also was not only a published writer and poet, but a professional Shakespearean actor with a history of radio performance and technical board engineering skills honed by the Psychological Warfare Department of the US Army. Bergman, a radio natural, was a brainy Yale grad who provided lyrics to college productions and popular recordings, edited the newspaper and was well versed enough to capture play writing grants for European sojourns. Proctor, a natural mimic with a proclivity for language, was a star thespian and vocalist from childhood on, a radio show editor, and part time newspaper corespondent before graduating from the play grounds of Yale to the on and off Broadway stage and national touring circuits with his award winning performances. The 5th Krazee Guy had great minds to possess and work through.
To the rest of us, however, he is an unconscious conduit of comedy, awash in the cleansing of the abandonment of self for the collective humor of our imaginations. The 5th Krazee Guy is also the laughter of the audience and performer joining as one. The 5th Krazee Guy is the FIRESIGN THEATRE; an entity that the individual members always refer to in the 3rd person, as if their singular personality isn't part of it but that all of the others are. FIRESIGN started out as a put-on and it's been put on so many times that the individuals can no longer take it off. They are melded through time together, no matter what, and finally after a immense catalog of 30 years of recorded comedy and a variety of endless media explorations and projects spreading out in every direction like a vat of spilled molasses, leaving footprints in everything they do, the guys are beginning to look upon it all as a totality, a body of work, succumbing the hard earned egos.
But back to our story. The writing sessions for the Magic Mushroom plays created the real FIRESIGN THEATRE, as we know it, and sparked the fires that burned up the grooves, needling the true direction and possibilities for some of the greatest moments in the history of recorded hilarity. Their initial album, WAITING FOR THE ELECTRICIAN, OR SOMEONE LIKE HIM (1968), heralded the anti-culture's response to the institution and disintegration of the counter culture, being able to make fun of itself in the mean time. They began to slowly realize that an entire record could successfully be utilized to produce essentially radio plays that could be re-played over and over and still be enjoyed like a piece of music. The main thrust of the records was to lay down universal themes that would spring forth evergreen humors over the decades, leaving the more topical observations for the instant radio delivery systems. It was a breakthrough piece of work that laid the path for them to follow. The article on the making of their first album transcribed from David Ossman's radio documentary lays out the story better than I can and is featured later in this magazine.
With a major record contract under their belts, FIRESIGN THEATRE became the vanguard of Rock comedy groups, being the first to utilize rock and roll recording techniques and radio stylizations to step forward out of the fold into a land that was uniquely their own for dozens of albums over 3 decades. The Electrician album's sales were terrible at first. By the time it came out RADIO FREE OZ was off the air. The group stayed together by performing at The Ash Grove, local clubs and college venues in the LA area. By the end of the year CBS was ready to throw them off the label but well placed admirers with clout in the hierarchy realized the potential that was developing and forced their board heads to continue the conversation. Jim Guercio, a highly successful producer / manager took them under his wing and made sure that things worked right for the guys, getting the next album recorded, making sure it got played on the air and reviewed in the pop press, that concerts were booked and ran smoothly and that other outside jobs kept coming in, even if just to reinforce his other acts. FIRESIGN started making funny 'real' radio commercials for Carnation Instant Breakfast, A-1 Slacks, International House of Pancakes, and Craig Stereo, some of which appear on "Pink Hotel". The word got around Hollywood that FIRESIGN was tuned into the rising counter culture market and they were asked to write dialog for the big budget psychedelic western Zachariah. The guys adapted to any media that was presented to them working on a project by project basis, out of an office.
By the summer of 1969 everything seemed to fall into place and the well oiled machinery was working at full steam. Record sales started billowing on the winds of FM radio and college stations throughout the underground over-the-air Woodstock nation and smoke filled rooms. Album after album came out over the following decades:
Each of these recorded works was better and/or different than the last. There was no set formula, and all were supported by the inclusion of the fans in the act - the Dear Friends that mortered the building blocks of the FIRESIGN THEATRE.
Their continuation of various FIRESIGN THEATRE radio shows, broadcast from different stations and the constant improvisational demand called for, honed their skills and developed new concepts that were boiled down onto the flat vinyl that furnished their fame and rewarded their efforts as being one of the top selling comedy groups of all time. Many of their radio programs made it on to the discs over the years, with lots of records produced specifically for air play along with the endless miles of taped airchecks archived that still continue to supply us with longed-for levity. When the creative well springs ran dry, they could always return to the radio laughs for re-grooving the next record.
Their popularity rose and national tours were booked like a rock band. The grueling schedule continued to well into the 70's. The group fragmented into separate entities and solo albums but never officially broke up, coming back together for special projects. The conversation continued whether it was four people talking, three, two or just one, muttering to themselves and us. When infighting and separate careers steered the working elements apart, the conversation still continued, unabated. Work brought them together, fulfilling each other's needs. But not being a tied down solid group has tended to disperse the legions of fans and dear friends that they once had over the years. Now it's next to impossible to get the word out to most of them, leaving a hard core ball of the most dedicated who have worked tirelessly to keep the faith, the high priests guarding the secret passage ways of the initiates, passing along the torch after being burnt out from their Olympian marathon. There are now gate keepers at both ends of the spectrum. The pre-programmed conservative think tank driven corporate control world has supplied FIRESIGN with a lot of material but little speculative material outlook. It costs a lot of money to get studio time these dark days and the pop machinery that used to breeze them along is geared for those already at the top or being groomed for mega marketing.
FIRESIGN is a non-group in the best Dadaist sense and the guys are spoiled now by their individual achievements. Why take a chance when you've got bills to pay, mortgages and families to feed when you're pushing 60? They're modernists that realize that in the 90's the projects must be able to fund themselves. The days of big record company welfare grants are over. But when the money and the moment come together, FIRESIGN shines brighter than it ever did before. Though frustrating, that has never kept the guys from putting on a good show, for these are true show people, not just entertainers and vacuous celebrities riding the current trendy waves. These are hard working craftsman honing our thoughts and massaging our intellects with any media opportunity that they can find, borrow, steal or fondle with great delight. By the way, they're extremely funny too.
Radio made FIRESIGN THEATRE what it is, and has always been a home for them to hang their comedic hats, take off their shoes, and burn their uniforms. It is radio today that continues to bring the group together as the tribute by The Museum Of Television and Radio testified. Times may have changed, people may have grown in different directions, thoughts may travel into diverse atmospheres but radio has a power all of its own, and an attraction that not only brings FIRESIGN THEATRE back together but all of us as well. The recorded spoken word has a power that transcends all barriers, mental and physical, just as radio beams do, if our antennae are properly tuned.
One tends to get all wrapped up in the sacred cubit that we measure our cherished cultish cloning by. The fans seem to take the group far more seriously then the guys do themselves. The illusion of unity that the 5th Krazee guy draws us together with his ESP broadcasts, languishes in shallow pools that the boys happily skip around in, splashing us in face, drenching our thirst for heady humor. Little do they realize just how wet their own clothes get while having fun and being caught up in the moment. When they get home to dry their mukluks by the fire, it's only then the realization that FIRESIGN are now grown men in a material world of demand time. Together, by being separate, they have survived all the wars, battlements and wounds that personalize our failings and missed challenges.
As the century of technology peaks and the true age of enlightenment holds its carrot forever out of our grasp, and age turns our bodies and minds old, it looks like that FIRESIGN THEATRE will be there, forever young, to throw it's levity light on the whole absurd situation of the human condition, their own included. That is comedy of the highest order, lashed in the truest sense of the word.
Our comedic recorded history began with the spinning cylinders of Edison phonographs barking out the rural ruberisms of Cal Stewart's Uncle Josh and it now looks like it will end with the high minded technically torn pushed envelopes of Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, Phil Proctor and David Ossman's FIRESIGN THEATRE spinning discs of digitized delineations to carry us over into the next millennium. The conversation continues. Let's join it in progress...